The pirate negotiator: Aboard hijacked tanker, this Somali called the shots

October 2, 2012

It had been more than a year since Mahedo Makane turned his tanker away from the Somali coast and headed out to sea and freedom. But when he took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Norfolk earlier this year, the ordeal he and his crew had endured was vivid in the captain’s mind: Makane described how his ship had been hijacked on a muggy May afternoon in 2010 and how the mariners suffered through 10 months of stifling confinement, death threats and torture.

The nightmare finally ended, the captain said, three days after Christmas. His company had parachuted in a $5 million ransom, and the pirates had divvied up their loot. As the final two pirates stepped from the deck of the Marida Marguerite, one turned to address the crew. He was Mohammad Shibin, a smooth-talking, English-speaking Somali who had acted as the pirates’ negotiator with the German shipping company. He had also helped keep the crew in line, often brutally.

As Makane, a father of three in his 50s with thick black hair and large glasses, recounted that final meeting, he looked across the courtroom at the gray-haired Shibin, who was sitting pensively at the defense table.

“You will definitely not like me to see you again,” the captain recalled Shibin saying as he left the tanker that December day. “If you see me, you will hate me.”

The circumstances that brought an Indian ship captain, a Ukrainian engineer, German police officers and representatives of a German shipping company into a Norfolk federal courtroom for the trial of a Somali negotiator are complicated, involving a second hijacking and centuries-old U.S. statutes on high-seas piracy.

But the case highlights what federal authorities say is the important and little-known role that negotiators such as Shibin play in Somali piracy, which has received international attention in recent years. A U.N. Security Council report in July said that such piracy remains a “threat to global shipping” and a “humanitarian tragedy for hijacked seafarers and kidnapped hostages.”

Although hijackings have declined in the past year or so because of stepped-up security precautions, attempted hijackings by Somali pirates are on the rise, international authorities say. This year, Somali pirates have successfully hijacked 13 ships and continue to hold more than 180 hostages.

Multilingual, computer-savvy negotiators such as Shibin make piracy profitable, said Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose attorneys prosecuted Shibin this year.

“But for guys like Shibin, there would be fewer hijackings,” MacBride said. “The six guys who seize the ship and speak no English, they need a man like Shibin to monetize the ship, its crew and its cargo.”

Shibin is not the only alleged pirate negotiator in U.S. custody. Federal prosecutors are seeking to try Ali Mohamed Ali in the District’s federal court on charges tied to the 2008 hijacking of a Danish ship.

Shibin was arrested last year by the FBI shortly after he participated in the hijacking of the Quest, a U.S. sailboat on which four Americans were killed by Somali pirates. The 50-year-old former teacher — who learned English at school in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, is a father of five and once worked as an oil company dispatcher — was convicted of piracy and hostage-taking on the Marida Marguerite and the Quest. He was sentenced in August to life in prison. His court-appointed attorney, James O. Broccoletti, who argued that Shibin was nothing more than a humanitarian intermediary, is appealing the verdict.

Six men in a small boat

Shibin’s trial, which included testimony from crew members of the Marida Marguerite, fellow pirates and federal agents, as well as the playing of audio recordings of his negotiations, provided a rare account of a negotiator’s work and the gruesome day-to-day life aboard a pirated ship.

The hijacking of the Marida Marguerite began May 8, 2010, in the Gulf of Aden, as the 30,000-ton red-and-white-painted tanker carrying castor oil and a gasoline additive traversed “pirate alley” — an area of water between Somalia and Yemen known for its high number of hijackings — on its way from India to Rotterdam.

That’s when the crew noticed a blip on the ship’s radar. It was approaching. Fast. It could be only one thing: pirates.

Crew mates assembled on the bridge and hoped that their precautions would be enough. The ship was wrapped in razor wire, and sailors were ready to grab fire hoses to jettison any pirates who managed to board.

An hour after the blip appeared, the ship’s 43-year-old chief engineer, Oleg Dereglazov, turned to the stern and spotted a small skiff loaded with six men, all carrying rifles. The skiff, pounding through the waves at 20 knots, was gaining on the lumbering tanker. The pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade that arced over the Marida Marguerite, then another. If one of the rockets hit the vessel and its volatile cargo, Dereglazov later recalled, “there would be no ship nor pirates.”

The ship slowed, and a sailor threw a ladder over its starboard side. The mariners watched as the six Somali pirates, armed with AK-47s, stepped onto the deck and headed straight for the bridge, where they ordered the captain to sail toward Somali waters. He refused. A pirate took off the captain’s glasses and slapped him hard across the face, making the demand plain: Comply, Makane testified, or be “physically abused.”

‘I myself am not a pirate’

Two days later, the ship was anchored off the Somali coast, where 60 armed pirates boarded. One was Shibin, who picked up a satellite phone and contacted a representative of the shipping company in Germany.

“Hello. I’m calling from the Marida Marguerite,” he said before putting the captain on the line. Makane told his bosses, “They are saying if their demands are not met, they will harass us and they will kill us.”

Taking back the phone, Shibin added: “I myself am not a pirate. I work for a local NGO, a human rights NGO in this area. And I volunteered to do this job because I want to save their lives, and I don’t want these animals to get rid of your crew, okay?”

But to the ship’s crew, it appeared that Shibin was taking orders from the pirates’ commanders.

Over the next few days, Shibin pressed Makane and other crew members about the value of the tanker, its cargo, its food and fuel supplies, and its ability to produce fresh water. He befriended the second officer, who provided valuable information in exchange for privileges. Only then did Shibin make the pirates’ initial demand.

“They are asking for $15 million,” he told the company representative, subtly distancing himself from the pirates.

“Did you say $15 million?” asked an incredulous shipping company official.

Torture on the ship

As days turned to weeks, Shibin continued to speak periodically with the shipping company; the crew lived on the bridge. The pirates roamed the ship, sipped tea and looted whatever valuables they could find. They also chewed copious amounts of the stimulative plant khat. Shibin ate so much that his belly became as round as an ocean buoy, and he soon earned the nickname “Dracula” because he seemed to appear only at night, when he was enjoying khat with the pirates.

In July, another pirate skiff approached the tanker, and a pirate asked for fresh water. The Marida Marguerite had a fuel-hungry desalinization system that removed salt from seawater to make it safe for drinking. The captain, worrying that he would waste valuable fuel to make fresh water for pirates, refused the request.

“We have water which is enough for us, but we do not have water to give to other ships,” he told the pirates.

“You have to obey them,” Shibin said.

Incensed by the captain’s intransigence, the pirates dragged him and Dereglazov, the chief engineer, to different sides of the ship, blindfolded them and started shooting guns into the air. The pirates then strung them to pipes and let them hang from their arms.

About a month later, Shibin instructed Makane to call his company to report that the ship was about to be handed over to a terrorist group. He allowed crew members to call their families — but only if they said they had “only 24 hours left to live.” More pirates docked next to the tanker, and Shibin told the captain and the chief engineer that they had to turn over more fresh water. Again, the captain refused.

With Shibin watching, the pirates dangled the chief engineer over the sea, as if he were going to be thrown overboard. They did the same to the captain. Then the pirates strapped a plastic bag over the captain’s head so that Makane felt like he was suffocating. A pirate, wielding a big knife, said: “We are going to slaughter you. Now you better tell the truth [about] the fresh water.”

By early September, with fuel running low, the pirates’ tactics became more extreme. They stripped the captain naked, placed tight plastic ties around his genitals and locked him in a freezer.

When Makane pleaded for help, Shibin smiled and turned away.

A ransom is paid

By December, after scores of calls, Shibin and the German company had reached an agreement on a $5 million ransom. In the hopes of making a little extra cash for himself, Shibin forced the captain to get on the phone to praise his efforts as negotiator. “You have to understand that [Shibin] has done a lot for us,” the captain said.

The next day, the captain managed to call his company after Shibin stepped away from the bridge. “Nothing else has to be done for him,” he told his representative.

On a sunny day in late December, the pirates lined the crew members up on the deck of the ship as a small plane circled overhead, checking that they were alive. Then the plane dropped two containers filled with $5 million in cash. The hijacking of the Marida Marguerite was over.

Two months later, a small group of pirates seized the Quest, a sailboat with four Americans on board, only to be intercepted by U.S. Navy warships. When the Navy urged the pirates to release their hostages, the pirates refused but provided the cellphone number of their negotiator: Shibin.

Although the FBI determined that Shibin had researched the Quest and communicated with pirates about the hijacking, he never got the chance to play the intermediary. The pirates executed the four Americans when it became clear that the Navy was not going to allow them to slip into Somali waters. The killings sparked an intense FBI investigation; Shibin was arrested in a joint operation by the FBI and Somali security forces, turned over to federal agents and placed on a plane bound for America — and the courtroom where he would face the men who he had promised would hate him.

Wilber is on Twitter: @delwilber.

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